[Editor Note: This MPEP section is applicable to applications subject to the first inventor to file (FITF) provisions of the AIA except that the relevant date is the “effective filing date” of the claimed invention instead of the “time the invention was made,” which is only applicable to applications subject to pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 102. See 35 U.S.C. 100 (note) and MPEP § 2150 et seq.]
Ascertaining the differences between the prior art and the claims at issue requires interpreting the claim language, and considering both the invention and the prior art references as a whole. See MPEP § 2111 – § 2116.01 for case law pertaining to claim interpretation. See also MPEP § 2143.03 for examples of types of claim language that may raise a question as to its limiting effect.
I. THE CLAIMED INVENTION AS A WHOLE MUST BE CONSIDERED
In determining the differences between the prior art and the claims, the question under 35 U.S.C. 103 is not whether the differences themselves would have been obvious, but whether the claimed invention as a whole would have been obvious. Stratoflex, Inc. v. Aeroquip Corp., 713 F.2d 1530, 218 USPQ 871 (Fed. Cir. 1983); Schenck v. Nortron Corp., 713 F.2d 782, 218 USPQ 698 (Fed. Cir. 1983) (Claims were directed to a vibratory testing machine (a hard-bearing wheel balancer) comprising a holding structure, a base structure, and a supporting means which form “a single integral and gaplessly continuous piece.” Nortron argued the invention is just making integral what had been made in four bolted pieces, improperly limiting the focus to a structural difference from the prior art and failing to consider the invention as a whole. The prior art perceived a need for mechanisms to dampen resonance, whereas the inventor eliminated the need for dampening via the one-piece gapless support structure. “Because that insight was contrary to the understandings and expectations of the art, the structure effectuating it would not have been obvious to those skilled in the art.” 713 F.2d at 785, 218 USPQ at 700 (citations omitted).).
See also In re Hirao, 535 F.2d 67, 190 USPQ 15 (CCPA 1976) (Claims were directed to a three step process for preparing sweetened foods and drinks. The first two steps were directed to a process of producing high purity maltose (the sweetener), and the third was directed to adding the maltose to foods and drinks. The parties agreed that the first two steps were nonobvious but formed a known product and the third step was obvious. The Solicitor argued the preamble was directed to a process for preparing foods and drinks sweetened mildly and thus the specific method of making the high purity maltose (the first two steps in the claimed process) should not be given weight, analogizing with product-by-process claims. The court disagreed and held “due to the admitted unobviousness of the first two steps of the claimed combination of steps, the subject matter as a whole would not have been obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made.” 535 F.2d at 69, 190 USPQ at 17 (emphasis in original). The preamble only recited the purpose of the process and did not limit the body of the claim. Therefore, the claimed process was a three step process, not the product formed by two steps of the process or the third step of using that product.).
II. DISTILLING THE INVENTION DOWN TO A “GIST” OR “THRUST” OF AN INVENTION DISREGARDS “AS A WHOLE” REQUIREMENT
Distilling an invention down to the “gist” or “thrust” of an invention disregards the requirement of analyzing the subject matter “as a whole.” W.L. Gore & Assoc., Inc. v. Garlock, Inc., 721 F.2d 1540, 220 USPQ 303 (Fed. Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 851 (1984) (restricting consideration of the claims to a 10% per second rate of stretching of unsintered PTFE and disregarding other limitations resulted in treating claims as though they read differently than allowed); Bausch & Lomb v.Barnes-Hind/Hydrocurve, Inc., 796 F.2d 443, 447-49, 230 USPQ 416, 419-20 (Fed. Cir. 1986), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 823 (1987) (District court focused on the “concept of forming ridgeless depressions having smooth rounded edges using a laser beam to vaporize the material,” but “disregarded express limitations that the product be an ophthalmic lens formed of a transparent cross-linked polymer and that the laser marks be surrounded by a smooth surface of unsublimated polymer.”). See also Jones v. Hardy, 727 F.2d 1524, 1530, 220 USPQ 1021, 1026 (Fed. Cir. 1984) (“treating the advantage as the invention disregards statutory requirement that the invention be viewed ‘as a whole’”); Panduit Corp. v. Dennison Mfg. Co., 810 F.2d 1561, 1 USPQ2d 1593 (Fed. Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 481 U.S. 1052 (1987) (district court improperly distilled claims down to a one word solution to a problem).
III. DISCOVERING SOURCE/CAUSE OF A PROBLEM IS PART OF “AS A WHOLE” INQUIRY
“[A] patentable invention may lie in the discovery of the source of a problem even though the remedy may be obvious once the source of the problem is identified. This is part of the ‘subject matter as a whole’ which should always be considered in determining the obviousness of an invention under 35 U.S.C. § 103.” In re Sponnoble, 405 F.2d 578, 585, 160 USPQ 237, 243 (CCPA 1969). However, “discovery of the cause of a problem . . does not always result in a patentable invention. . . . [A] different situation exists where the solution is obvious from prior art which contains the same solution for a similar problem.” In re Wiseman, 596 F.2d 1019, 1022, 201 USPQ 658, 661 (CCPA 1979) (emphasis in original).
In In re Sponnoble, the claim was directed to a plural compartment mixing vial wherein a center seal plug was placed between two compartments for temporarily isolating a liquid-containing compartment from a solids-containing compartment. The claim differed from the prior art in the selection of butyl rubber with a silicone coating as the plug material instead of natural rubber. The prior art recognized that leakage from the liquid to the solids compartment was a problem, and considered the problem to be a result of moisture passing around the center plug because of microscopic fissures inherently present in molded or blown glass. The court found the inventor discovered the cause of moisture transmission was through the center plug, and there was no teaching in the prior art which would suggest the necessity of selecting applicant’s plug material which was more impervious to liquids than the natural rubber plug of the prior art.
In In re Wiseman, 596 F.2d at 1022, 201 USPQ at 661, claims directed to grooved carbon disc brakes wherein the grooves were provided to vent steam or vapor during a braking action to minimize fading of the brakes were rejected as obvious over a reference showing carbon disc brakes without grooves in combination with a reference showing grooves in noncarbon disc brakes for the purpose of cooling the faces of the braking members and eliminating dust, thereby reducing fading of the brakes. The court affirmed the rejection, holding that even if the inventor discovered the cause of a problem, the solution would have been obvious from the prior art which contained the same solution (inserting grooves in disc brakes) for a similar problem.
IV. APPLICANTS ALLEGING DISCOVERY OF A SOURCE OF A PROBLEM MUST PROVIDE SUBSTANTIATING EVIDENCE
Applicants who allege the inventor discovered the source of a problem must provide evidence substantiating the allegation, either by way of affidavits or declarations, or by way of a clear and persuasive assertion in the specification. In re Wiseman, 596 F.2d 1019, 201 USPQ 658 (CCPA 1979) (unsubstantiated statement of counsel was insufficient to show appellants discovered source of the problem); In re Kaslow, 707 F.2d 1366, 217 USPQ 1089 (Fed. Cir. 1983) (Claims were directed to a method for redeeming merchandising coupons which contain a UPC “5-by-5” bar code wherein, among other steps, the memory at each supermarket would identify coupons by manufacturer and transmit the data to a central computer to provide an audit thereby eliminating the need for clearinghouses and preventing retailer fraud. In challenging the propriety of an obviousness rejection, appellant argued he discovered the source of a problem (retailer fraud and manual clearinghouse operations) and its solution. The court found appellant’s specification did not support the argument that he discovered the source of the problem with respect to retailer fraud, and that the claimed invention failed to solve the problem of manual clearinghouse operations.).
V. DISCLOSED INHERENT PROPERTIES ARE PART OF “AS A WHOLE” INQUIRY
“In determining whether the invention as a whole would have been obvious under 35 U.S.C. 103, we must first delineate the invention as a whole. In delineating the invention as a whole, we look not only to the subject matter which is literally recited in the claim in question… but also to those properties of the subject matter which are inherent in the subject matter and are disclosed in the specification. . . Just as we look to a chemical and its properties when we examine the obviousness of a composition of matter claim, it is this invention as a whole, and not some part of it, which must be obvious under 35 U.S.C. 103.” In re Antonie, 559 F.2d 618, 620, 195 USPQ 6,8 (CCPA 1977) (emphasis in original) (citations omitted) (The claimed wastewater treatment device had a tank volume to contactor area of 0.12 gal./sq. ft. The court found the invention as a whole was the ratio of 0.12 and its inherent property that the claimed devices maximized treatment capacity regardless of other variables in the devices. The prior art did not recognize that treatment capacity was a function of the tank volume to contactor ratio, and therefore the parameter optimized was not recognized in the art to be a result-effective variable.). See also In re Papesch, 315 F.2d 381, 391, 137 USPQ 43, 51 (CCPA 1963) (“From the standpoint of patent law, a compound and all its properties are inseparable.”).
Obviousness cannot be predicated on what is not known at the time an invention is made, even if the inherency of a certain feature is later established. In re Rijckaert, 9 F.3d 1531, 28 USPQ2d 1955 (Fed. Cir. 1993). See MPEP § 2112 for the requirements of rejections based on inherency.
VI. PRIOR ART MUST BE CONSIDERED IN ITS ENTIRETY, INCLUDING DISCLOSURES THAT TEACH AWAY FROM THE CLAIMS
A prior art reference must be considered in its entirety, i.e., as a whole, including portions that would lead away from the claimed invention. W.L. Gore & Assoc., Inc. v. Garlock, Inc., 721 F.2d 1540, 220 USPQ 303 (Fed. Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 851 (1984) (Claims were directed to a process of producing a porous article by expanding shaped, unsintered, highly crystalline poly(tetrafluoroethylene) (PTFE) by stretching said PTFE at a 10% per second rate to more than five times the original length. The prior art teachings with regard to unsintered PTFE indicated the material does not respond to conventional plastics processing, and the material should be stretched slowly. A reference teaching rapid stretching of conventional plastic polypropylene with reduced crystallinity combined with a reference teaching stretching unsintered PTFE would not suggest rapid stretching of highly crystalline PTFE, in light of the disclosures in the art that teach away from the invention, i.e., that the conventional polypropylene should have reduced crystallinity before stretching, and that PTFE should be stretched slowly). Allied Erecting v. Genesis Attachments, 825 F.3d 1373, 1381, 119 USPQ2d 1132, 1138 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“Although modification of the movable blades may impede the quick change functionality disclosed by Caterpillar, ‘[a] given course of action often has simultaneous advantages and disadvantages, and this does not necessarily obviate motivation to combine.’” (quoting Medichem, S.A. v. Rolabo, S.L., 437 F.3d 1157, 1165, 77 USPQ2d 1865, 1870 (Fed Cir. 2006) (citation omitted))).
However, “the prior art’s mere disclosure of more than one alternative does not constitute a teaching away from any of these alternatives because such disclosure does not criticize, discredit, or otherwise discourage the solution claimed….” In re Fulton, 391 F.3d 1195, 1201, 73 USPQ2d 1141, 1146 (Fed. Cir. 2004). See also MPEP § 2123.